Theater Book of the Week #1

(A new feature for every Monday, when most theaters are dark.)

The American Stage—Writing on Theater from Washington Irving to Tony Kushner. Laurence Senelick, editor; foreword by John Lithgow. Library of America, 2010. Nearly 900 pages!

I took several theater and film classes from Laurence Senelick at Tufts University in the early 1980s. It’s common to be enrthralled by one’s college professors, and to judge their work too lightly, so I’ll add that I wasn’t some naive student pushover—I’d grown up around theater scholars all of my life, and one of Laurence’s colleagues in the Tufts Drama Department (and its chairman for seven years) was my father Peter Arnott, no slouch as a lecturer and

I was an unruly, hard-to-please, authority-questioning student, and it took a lot to impress me. Laurence Senelick always did.

I dug Laurence’s lectures because they didn’t just tell you why that’s week’s subject was historically important. Through the accustomed theatrical tools of sensationalism, hyperbole and dishy rumors, his classes made you realize why people outside the classroom cared about these things.

His lectures on Antonin Artaud are the stuff of legend. Laurence would enter the lecture hall (the actual stage of the Tufts Arena Theater) brandishing a batch of recent test papers. Railing violently about how poor the work was, he would insult the students and destroy their work before their astonished eyes. Those lectures brought tears, dismay, even threats of lawsuits, despite their clear puncline: That’s what Artaud was going for.

Prof. Senelick’s great strength as a scholar (he’s also one hell of a director and translator) is his range of interests and his lack of snobbery. He’s written extensively 0n decadent European cabaret, drag culture and the clown George F. Fox. One of the best classes I took at Tufts was Laurence’s on the history of silent film, a subject in which I was already versed, until he exposed us to everything from Nizimova’s Salome to vintage pornography.

His everything-goes sense of theater as a popular art form, not one to stultified by academic overkill, distinguishes Senelick’s compilation The American Stage just as it does his lectures. All the accepted Drama 101 critic/historians are in it—Eric Bentley, Edmund Wilson, George Jean Nathan, Stark Young, John Mason Brown and my personal idols Carl Van Vechten and Gilbert Seldes. But unlike so many comps which include essays by these guys to remind us why they were “important,” the picks here prove they were clever and influential and readable. They’re helped by Senelick’s own short intros to each pick. He tells us how John Lahr’s career as a critic picked up after he published Notes on a Cowardly Lion, about his father Bert, and has this to say about Walter Kerr: “With his academic background, he was unimpressed by what he considered intellectual pretension, so that the later works of Stephen Sondheim and Samuel Beckett often met with his disfavor. He fancied himself speaking for the middlebrow position and endorsing what his readers would approve.”

Then there are the surprises: bestselling novelists who dabbled in theater crit, like Gore Vidal and Langston Hughes and Willa Cather and even Mark Twain (with commentary on minstrel shows.) Bits by writers who were sniffed at by the theater fraternity because they were considered outsiders are gleefully excerpted:  William Goldman’s The Season, Susan Sontag on Marat/Sade.

Playwrights and directors not generally known for offstage pontifications are applauded: Edward Albee’s essay on Absurdism (required reading for those who enjoyed the recent Yale Rep production of his A Delicate Balance), Sherlock Holmes portrayer William Gillette’s “The Illusion of the First Time,” Elia Kazan’s “Audience Tomorrow: Preview in New Guinea,” Charles L. Mee Jr. on “The Becks’ Living Theatre.” As the subjects from this subset alone shows, The American Stage delves into a diversity of theater activities that bring you far beyond the Great White Way. You meet Luis Valdez, Djuna Barnes, Anne Bogart. There’s radical historical Hutchins Hapgood on Yiddish theater in the Bowery and Ed Bullins’ “A Short Statement on Street Theatre.”

Don Marquis’ archy & mehitabel poem about “the old trouper” is happily included, as is golden age radio star Fred Allen’s essay on his vaudeville roots.

The Algonkuin Round Table is represented not just by Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott. There’s also a litany of Robert Benchley’s hilarious one-line dismissals of Abie’s Irish Rose from theater listings he compiled, and a Ring Lardner one-act which parodies modernist theater proclivities of the 1920s. It ends:
FIRST GLUE LIFTER: Well, my man, how goes it?

SECOND GLUE LIFTER: [Sings “My Man,” to show how it goes.]

[Eight realtors cross the stage in a friendly way. They are out of place.]

Senelick’s whole dazzling centuries-spanning The American Stage collection closes with a progressive sense of the potential for theater to continue to make noise and evince revolution, with essays from Spalding Gray, Nation critic Tom Disch (“The Death of Broadway”), Charles Ludlam, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (on “The Chitlin Circuit” which gave us Tyler Perry), David Mamet (must have been hard to just pick one example of Mamet’s disdain for contemporary theater; Senelick went with “The Problem Play”) and Tony Kushner writing about his wordy tragedy-scribing forebear Arthur Miller. Its opening line: “Arthur Miller died on Bertolt Brecht’s birthday.”

Drama departments nationwide, toss out all your textbooks and replace them with this collection, which redraws the canon and rewrites the definition of what’s cool. Or just treat it like the real involving book it is and curl up by the fireside with it. It’ll make you feel a passion for the American theater which you may have thought you’d never feel again, and which you almost certainly never expected to get in book form.

I’m just thrilled, after all these years, to sit in on another Laurence Senelick lecture.